How do I handle email overload when I can't block it out?
December 10, 2015 3:08 PM   Subscribe

I was recently promoted to a new position at work. That's good! With it has come a surprisingly overwhelming flood of email that I have just not been able to stay on top of. That's bad. How do I manage an incoming stream of hundreds of (substantive) emails a day, when periodically ignoring it is absolutely not an option?

I feel like this is some kind of Adulting 101 thing, I've been in the professional workforce for the better part of a decade, and I swear I checked the archives, but I seriously cannot keep up with my email. What tools/hacks/habits/labels/folders/time management systems should I be using to digest and prioritize an incoming firehose of email to make sure that people get responded to in a timely fashion, and I don't miss important details that need my attention? I use Outlook at work and have an Android phone, if it matters.

By way of relevant background, I am a lobbyist, so (at least when the legislature is in session) I really can't decide to ignore my email for chunks of time and deal with it in batches, because there's always a chance that something weird will turn up in a hearing or someone will pass along a tip that needs my immediate attention. I've been trying to deal with things as they come in, but I've gotten behind, missed things, or just plain was rude and failed to follow up with people asking questions in a timely manner. A lot of what I get is dense, substantive stuff, and a lot of it does actually require me to do something in response.

Please hope me. I see lots of very busy important people who somehow manage to not spontaneously combust from inbox drama, and I just know there has to be some sort of obvious system that I have managed to miss. I'm sure part of it is just new job/new subject matter flailing that will go away with time, but my digital disorganization is really making me miserable.
posted by bowtiesarecool to Work & Money (8 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Here are some things I do:
- Organize my emails by "Conversation" (this is available in outlook). This allows you to read the whole thread of emails from the top email.
- Set up "rules" to automatically move emails from/to certain senders (such as distributions lists) to go to a folder. I check this less often than my regular emails.
- When I am really overwhelmed, I rearrange my email organization to be from "sender" and then I answer the emails from my boss' boss first, then my boss, then my colleagues who are most influential, etc.
- I do not respond to things just to "give my two cents." I respond to questions specifically addressed to me and/or action items assigned to me. This cuts down on getting into "debates" with people over email
- I have a personal Service Level Agreement to respond to work emails within 24 hours. This means I do write back faster for most, 90% I get to within 24 hours, and 10% slip through the cracks. People have gotten use to the fact that it will take me 24 hours to respond & I have often found that others on the thread resolve the issue in that time.
posted by CMcG at 3:21 PM on December 10, 2015 [7 favorites]

One thing I did to manage this was to create a filter to prioritize emails sent directly to me by specific people who were very likely to say something urgent: my boss, some elected officials, etc. Outlook has the "really sent directly to me" filter option and it's surprisingly helpful.

Unless your boss is in the habit of just copying and pasting huge lists into the "to" section instead of using a proper mailing list.
posted by SMPA at 3:23 PM on December 10, 2015

posted by Che boludo! at 3:32 PM on December 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

The stuff CMcG suggests is pretty similar to what I do. The other thing I do is I try to handle an email the first time I touch it. I really try to force myself to not read it, think "ok, I'll deal with that later," and then leaving it in the inbox. If something needs more research or follow-up, I have folders I put things in for that (really labels, in Gmail), and then I get them out of the inbox. For me at least, a large majority of my mail is just stuff I can read and then get rid of, or at most send a quick "thanks" reply. Only a very small percentage needs real follow-up. This does mean I need to keep on top of those other labels, but it's part of my main routine now, and having the inbox only contain new stuff that I haven't even looked at yet makes it much more managable. I also almost never truly delete anything, since I have so much space in Gmail and the search is pretty good. This way I can pretty much "archive" with imputnity to get it out of my way, and still feel like I have the safety net that I can get it back later if it turns out I needed something from that message.
posted by primethyme at 3:36 PM on December 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Someone I used to work with set up filters on her inbox so that anything where she was only cc'd was sent to a separate folder, and the sender got an auto reply saying "thank you for copying me into that email. I have assumed it was only for information - if it requires action from me, please resend it to me with my name in the "to" field. Otherwise, I will read it at the end of the day".

The effects were twofold - people stopped cc'ing her on things she didn't really need to read; and she could be confident that the stuff in her inbox was stuff that was important.

Could you switch to a different medium for the really urgent stuff? Text message maybe?
posted by girlgenius at 5:23 PM on December 10, 2015 [4 favorites]

Use labels or folders, and yeah, don't open an email until you're ready to deal with it, unless you know it's a category of email (routine automated updates, status changes on a ticket that require no action) that you can quickly skim and file. I don't like setting types of email to automatically shunt away from the inbox, because I feel like I'd miss things that way, but if my inbox is snowed under by new email, here's how I'd prioritize:

1. Act on anything urgent and sent in an email that's just an email, not an update from a ticketing system or anything else automated. Email sent by a client, partner, or supervisor takes top priority.

2. Review and assign any new tickets (action items/new tasks) that are unassigned or assigned to me and come through by email. Search my email for each new ticket number to double-check that action hasn't been taken on them before I got back to my inbox—that saves time scanning the inbox visually.

3. For any automated email updates I receive for projects that aren't mine, I select them en masse, mark them read, label them Done, and archive. It's useful to get these updates where I can see them, so I know what else people are working on without having to take 15 minutes of everyone's time for a conversation, but some people just shunt them into labels.

4. For any automated email updates I receive for projects that are mine, I review them to know what's in progress, then select them en masse, mark them read, label them Done, and archive.

5. For any meeting updates or requests, I have a Meetings label, and if any action is required or there's an issue (proposed time won't work, someone crucial RSVPed no, etc.), I add a To Do label. If someone is just RSVPing to my meeting and no action is required, I'll usually immediately archive it with the labels Meetings and Done.

6. For new and ongoing conversations I'm monitoring but that aren't yet ready to act on, as well as archived conversations that I may need to return to, I use the label Reference. The former stay in the inbox as long as I think the conversation needs my attention; the latter are labeled and archived.

7. For any item that will need to be added to a meeting agenda, I keep it in the inbox and slap an Agenda label on it. Then when I'm making an agenda, I can search for items with that label, follow up on any questions, and change them to archived and labeled Done when they've been added.

8. As alluded to above, I currently maintain my to-do list with the To Do label in my inbox. There are other ways to do this—you could immediately add any items like that to a separate task-management system, for example—but since much of the work lives in the inbox anyway, that feels like unnecessary duplication to me.

9. Anything on the to-do list that requires more detailed follow-up or a lengthy email discussion is tackled once smaller tasks are cleared, unless it's urgent and addressed immediately. That way I can take care to consider my words and ensure my and the company's thought process are accurately represented.

That should usually take care of most of what's in my inbox pretty quickly, and I can apply those rules to triage email when I'm between other tasks, standing around, walking somewhere, just rolling out of bed, just about to get in bed, etc. Your categories may vary, but that's one way of triaging it all!

What helps then is to do a big sweep through your inbox at the end of each day or week, just to make sure any lingering items that have been labeled but not touched again are resolved. Also, I make liberal use of calendar events to remind myself when certain emails need to be sent or things need to be set up by, so things aren't just left in my inbox to wither. And yeah, as others have suggested, know what your office's expectations are for turnaround for various classes of items, and use that to prioritize, too. If your office doesn't have policies about this, work to establish them.

I know I'll remember some other facet of this once I hit post, but that's most of what I do to keep up-to-date with email!
posted by limeonaire at 7:45 PM on December 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

tl;dr: Automate what you can; develop automatic muscle memory for the rest.

All of my personal email rules may sound complex, but it's really just a flowchart, and you get used to it fast. Everyone who gets a lot of email has their own way of dealing with this stuff that makes sense to them, but those are some ideas to start.
posted by limeonaire at 7:57 PM on December 10, 2015

yep, similar to others here, if you use outlook, set up rules and have them autmatically sorted into specific folders with higher priorities etc.
posted by gregjunior at 12:19 PM on December 11, 2015

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